A mother and a teacher square off for a tense 75-minute conference in Gidion’s Knot. The subject? A fifth-grader who’s been suspended and, in the wake of that disciplinary action, committed suicide. What did he do to warrant his suspension? What could possibly have driven him to take his life? Was he a victim, or a danger to others?
These are the key questions at play in Johnna Adams’ taut drama, which ran until Aug. 3 at the Silver Spring Black Box Theatre—formerly Round House Silver Spring—and which will get a second life courtesy of the newish Next Stop Theatre Company in Herndon starting Aug. 28. It’s a scorcher of a production, handsomely designed, directed with a quiet force by Cristina Alicea, and performed with ferocity and conviction by Katy Carkuff as the putupon teacher and Caroline Stefanie Clay as that mightily aggrieved mother.
If Adams does indeed take her time cluing the audience in on the answers to those questions, as some critics have complained, and if Clay’s archly intellectual Corryn does sometimes come off as awfully arrogant for a character we’re presumably mean to grieve with, the story’s central concerns are still meaty enough, and framed boldly enough, that the evening has real teeth.
The title character, it will eventually be revealed, had written and circulated a vivid and terrifying short story, a chronicle of sensuality and slaughter tinged with occult fervor, all couched in language so lurid it hangs near-visibly in the air when Carkuff’s deeply rattled Heather is finally convinced to read it aloud to Corryn. The story’s carnage involves both Gidion’s fellow students and his teachers, including Heather herself; the imagery is extreme and horrific enough to suggest the darker visions of Hieronymus Bosch, or the purplest passages in Caryl Churchill’s dystopian Far Away, or—in the most explicit comparison the play itself makes—the magnificent corruptions of the Marquis de Sade. But it’s also a masterly piece of writing, as Corryn, a literature professor, recognizes instantly, a conscious homage to a great tradition of brutal war poetry and evidence of an expansive imagination and a vast promise. What’s a poor elementary-school teacher to do, confronted with something so powerfully dark?
Heather went for the suspension, of course, and with school violence never far from our collective consciousness, many audience members will think it the only sensible choice. But Gidion’s Knot takes the pretty firm position that such bourgeois timidity reflects a naive Victorian notion of childhood innocence, of children as a pure species in need of sheltering from influences like Gidion and de Sade. But children, one of Corryn’s speeches suggests, are anything but innocent; they’re savage creatures, rather, all id and Lord of the Flies appetite, unbridled by the morals and manners they haven’t had enough time yet to learn. Learning to deal honestly with that, this play suggests, might just be the best way to protect and preserve them.